That lightbulb moment

A new maze shows that fruit fly learning happens at the flick of a switch.
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A fruit fly larva navigating a Y-shaped maze. Image credit: Amanda Lesar (CC BY 4.0)

Brains learn from experience. They take events from the past, link them together, and use them to predict the future. This is true for fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, as well as for humans. One of the main questions in the field of neuroscience is, how does this kind of associative learning happen?

Fruit fly larvae can learn to associate a certain smell with a sugar reward. When a group of larvae learn to associate a smell with sugar, most but not all of them will approach that smell in the future. This shows associative learning in action, but it raises a big question. Did the larvae that failed to approach the smell fail to learn, or did they just happen to make a mistake finding the smell? Given another chance, would exactly the same larvae approach the smell as the first time? In other words, did all the larvae learn a little, or did some larvae learn completely and others learn nothing?

To find out, Lesar et al. built a computer-controlled maze to test whether individual fruit fly larvae liked or avoided a smell. Whenever a larva reached the middle of the Y-shaped maze, it could choose to go down one of two remaining corridors. One corridor contained air and the other carbon dioxide, a gas they would naturally avoid. Lesar et al. taught each larva to like carbon dioxide by activating reward neurons in its brain while filling the maze with carbon dioxide gas. Studying each larva as it navigated the maze revealed that they learn in a single jump, a 'lightbulb moment'. When Lesar et al. activated the reward neurons, the larva either ‘got it’ and stopped avoiding carbon dioxide altogether, or it did not. In the second case, it behaved as if it had received no training at all.

Classic and modern experiments on people suggest that humans might also learn in jumps, but research on our own brains is challenging. Fruit flies are an excellent model organism to study memory formation because they are easy to breed, and it is easy to manipulate their genetic code. Work in flies has already revealed many of the genes and cells responsible for learning and memory. But, to find the specific brain changes that explain learning, researchers need to know whether the animals they are examining have actually learned something. This new maze could help researchers to identify those individuals, making it easier to find out exactly how associative learning works.